How the Story of a Jailed Kyrgyzstani Dissident Poses a Big Challenge for US Human Rights Policy

Kyrgyzstan used to be a reliable US ally in Central Asia. That ceased being the case earlier this month, when Kyrgyzstan terminated a longstanding cooperation agreement with the United States over the USA’s decision to grant a jailed Kyrgyzstani activist a prestigious “Human Rights Defender Award.”
This incident has been largely overlooked in the American press, but it is indicative of deep geopolitical challenges the United States faces while trying to press for human rights in countries on the periphery of Russia. What looks like a diplomatic tantrum is also a troubling indicator of Kyrgyzstan’s belief that it can trade its democratic allies for a prime place in Russia’s expanding orbit.
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Azmijan Askarov is serving a life sentence for ‘organizing mass disturbances’. Prosecutors claimed he was involved in the mob killing of a policeman, and that he fomented instability in the ethnic violence in southern province Osh that left hundreds dead and thousands displaced in 2010. Human Rights Watch condemned the closed trial for irregularities and lack of adherence to national and international legal principles. The Kyrgyz justice system is beset with corruption, malpractice and unjust trials. (A current ongoing trial against an Imam, Rashot Kamalov, even uses expert testimony provided by an psychologist who does not speak the same language as Kamalov, and instead relies on interpretation of ‘body language’.)

Askarov is almost certainly behind bars in order to silence his work documenting police abuse. He founded ‘Air’, an organization to monitor and document police brutality, and conducted high-profile investigations against law enforcement. In 2010 he was arrested and sentenced. Last week, following the announcement of the award, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry commented, ‘The State Department’s Award is being given to the wrong person’ — for the Kyrgyz government, a human rights defender investigating police brutality is the wrong human rights defender.

Askarov displays alleged bruises during his 2010 trial. Credit: wikipedia
Askarov displays alleged bruises during his 2010 trial. Credit: wikipedia

Sensitivity regarding Askarov’s status as an ethnic Uzbek is undoubtedly another reason for the government’s indignation. The population of Kyrgyzstan consists of ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks united under one nationality – Kyrgyzstani. But since the Osh violence, the state has been waging a quiet war against the Uzbek population. Askarov is just one of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks who have been prosecuted following 2010. They remain victims of state-sponsored persecution, arbitrary arrest and torture. Relations between the two communities are tense – Kyrgyz public figures and even popstars have made calls to ban Uzbek language services and close schools. The notion of the international community celebrating the work of what they regard as an ‘Uzbek nationalist’ will have incensed officials who have devoted five years to deflecting attention from their own role in the 2010 violence.

The co-operation treaty will formally end on August 21 and the direct impact of its cancellation may amount to very little. The United States expressed disappointment, but claims that it will continue to supply aid to the impoverished nation. With Parliamentary elections due to take place in Kyrgyzstan on October 4th, the US and European nations will be keen to maintain sufficient influence to monitor any election irregularities and potential fallout.

The impact of Russia’s growing influence on human rights in Central Asia is highly concerning. Kyrgyzstan is clinging onto to its status as an island of democracy in a region of authoritarianism, see-sawing between democratic advances and regression. But soon Kyrgyzstan will have to choose a path. In recent months the Kyrgyz Parliament has considered copy-cat legislation that mimics Russia’s ban on so-called gay propaganda and efforts to label NGOs as ‘foreign agents’. The accession of Kyrgyzstan to the Eurasian currency union (EEU) and Russia’s continued debt relief cement the ties caused by the Soviet hangover. And as Russia continues to foment ideas of human rights as an interventionist and uniquely Western ideology, Kyrgyzstan’s capacity to re-name human rights defenders as dangerous criminals will be validated and evermore dangerous.